18-year term for man who bilked Catholic order

Posted: August 17, 2013

When her cellphone rang in May 2009, Sister Celeste Ortiz thought God had answered her prayers.

On the line was Samuel Alvarado, who said he was a priest in New Jersey with wonderful news. A parishioner had bequeathed $1 million to Ortiz's order, the Dominican Sisters of Our Lady of the Rosary of Fatima.

A fee was needed to process the inheritance, Alvarado said, but it would be reimbursed. He would personally deliver the papers.

Then 67, Ortiz was the superior for her order, which is based in Puerto Rico and has 130 nuns working in impoverished spots worldwide, including, at the time, Philadelphia. The call came as she was struggling to find funds for a mission in Haiti and to pay for an international gathering the order was holding that summer.

God's handiwork, she thought.

Weeks later, she wired $3,792 to New Jersey. Requests for more money followed. Then pleadings, demands, and, finally, threats. By 2011, the nun, two priests, their friends, relatives, and parishioners had handed more than $1 million to the fake priest, a con man named Adriano Sotomayor who gambled it away in casinos.

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Eduardo Robreno sentenced Sotomayor to 18 years in prison and ordered $1 million restitution - money the judge acknowledged would never be fully repaid.

There have been larger frauds, with more victims and higher losses. But this one struck a nerve with the judge and prosecutor because of its insidiousness and the tragic impact it had on the victims, most of whom live in Puerto Rico.

After losing his life savings, and thousands of dollars in debt, one 78-year-old retiree, Jaime Figueroa, hanged himself in April 2011. His wife of 50 years later was hospitalized in a psychiatric institution. A pastor in Puerto Rico was stripped of his parish and attempted suicide several times.

Another priest, the Rev. Christopher De Herrera, said he thought he was getting a much-needed donation for his termite-infested and leaky church in Puerto Rico, but instead lost more than $54,000 of his own and parishioners' money.

According to De Herrera, Sotomayor was relentless, sometimes calling 15 times or more a day.

"This man tried to push me to the brink of despair - and push me off," De Herrera said.

With three prior convictions in New Jersey, Sotomayor was a seasoned perpetrator of what prosecutors called an advanced-fee scheme.

He promised his targets large sums but said they needed to put up a little to process the transaction, according to court records, including his guilty plea. He used aliases and different phone numbers to pose as financial agents, and made sure his marks knew that the agreements required confidentiality.

Over time, the fee requests would increase or new ones would emerge - such as money for lawyers to fight challenges to the will, or accountants to prepay inheritance taxes - with a pledge that the money would be reimbursed.

In choosing priests and nuns, Sotomayor targeted respected and networked community members who could lead him to others with money, Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen Klotz told the judge.

Some nuns or priests were told to find the funds or face lawsuits or investigations that would expose their order and the wider church to scandal. With their vocations in the balance, they kept quiet.

"This is not an ordinary wire fraud," Klotz said. "These folks didn't just lose money, they lost so much more than that."

Sotomayor pleaded guilty to fraud in February and did not deny the allegations. But he said he wasn't a criminal at heart.

Breaking what he said had been a decades-long silence, Sotomayor told the judge he had targeted the clergy because he was raped by a priest in Puerto Rico when he was 13. He claimed other members of the church community - including Ortiz - knew about the attack but ignored his allegations and conspired to protect the abusive priest.

"Nobody knows what I've suffered inside for 40 years," Sotomayor said in Spanish through an interpreter, his voice rising and choking. "They molded me, they created me. If they would have listened to me, I wouldn't be here today, I wouldn't be here."

Ortiz denied the claim. "He's lying," she later said.

A nun with two dark-colored rosaries dangling from her white habit, Ortiz was removed as the order's superior and now lives in seclusion. On Thursday, she ambled to the witness stand and, fighting tears, tried to explain why she was reluctant to recognize a fraud that devastated so many lives.

"After a lot of prayer, I asked myself, am I closing the doors to divine providence? Is God trying to send me help?" she said.

The scheme began to unravel after one of the nuns living in Levittown, Sister Alba Bonilla, contacted the FBI in April 2011 and agreed to begin recording her conversations with Sotomayor. After he was indicted that November, Sotomayor fled to Las Vegas, where he continued pressing his victims for money.

Klotz said casino records showed Sotomayor gambled with more than $1 million at the Trump Plaza Casino in 2010, and $600,000 at Bally's another year. He also spent $21,000 on his wedding and $6,000 at a New York salon for his wife.

Sotomayor's court-appointed lawyer, Mark Greenberg, said it was difficult to imagine a group of more sympathetic victims. But he argued that their status as priests and nuns did not distinguish them from other fraud victims and should not be the justification for a prison term beyond the 10 to 12 years recommended under sentencing guidelines.

"It's fair to say that many of these people had a self-interest in getting this money," he said.

Robreno said he took no position on Sotomayor's allegations of clergy sex abuse, except that if they were true they should have been reported to authorities. But he said there was no proof of connections between those claims and his victims in the fraud.

And personal vengeance, the judge said, "is absolutely contrary to the rule of law."

In the wake of the loss, the Dominican sisters faced lawsuits and Rome launched its own investigation. The order has since removed its nuns from the Philadelphia region.

"Our community now is struggling, I would say, to survive," Bonilla said.

Contact John P. Martin at 215-925-2649, at jmartin@phillynews.com or @JPMartinInky on Twitter.

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